NJ’s Water Infrastructure Needs Hearts, Minds, and Massive Investment

New Jersey’s network of water pipes is aging and in need of a major overhaul but advocates believe the public knows little and cares less about the problem

water infrastructure
The challenge of winning public support for a campaign to upgrade New Jersey’s aging network of water pipes is as big as its multibillion-dollar price tag, but that didn’t stop advocates making their latest bid to win hearts and minds.

Jersey Water Works, a collaborative dedicated to renewing the state’s creaking water infrastructure, is urging its members to focus on how to build popular demand for the overhaul that would stop leaks of billions of gallons of treated drinking water, and prevent raw sewage pouring into rivers during rainstorms.

Members attending a half-day brainstorming session in Jersey City on Tuesday called for a higher profile on social media; more campaigning in schools and colleges; a more targeted approach to different age groups, and a renewed effort to win support from state lawmakers.

Some accused local media of paying scant attention to the problem, and wondered whether they could stir reporters’ interest by highlighting dramatic illustrations of the problem like overflowing sewers or broken water mains.

But all agreed that most people know little and care less about where their water comes from or of the massive investment that’s needed to keep it flowing. Since water pipes are buried underground, public attitudes seem to be a matter of out-of-sight-out-of-mind, they said.

Average customer ‘knows little to nothing’

“The average customer knows little to nothing,” said Dennis Doll, chief executive of the Middlesex Water Company, during a panel on building public will for local investment in water infrastructure. “We all do it so well so we don’t give them a lot of reason. It’s a good news, bad news story.”

Doll argued that every customer should know where his or her water comes from; should understand the need for continued investment, and recognize that both public water systems and investor-owned utilities need somehow to meet that cost. Despite his concern about a lack of public interest in the issue, Doll said public support for major changes in water policy can be won under the right circumstances. He cited the recent California drought, when state government mandated a 25 percent reduction in water usage, and won such cooperation from the public that some people were reporting their neighbors for watering lawns.

Jersey Water Works estimates that the state needs to invest $27 billion on water infrastructure over the next 20 years to modernize pipework that in some cases is more than 100 years old. The organization, founded in December 2015, claims broad-based support for its mission, and now has 318 member organizations including water companies, local governments, environmental nonprofits, and universities.

Lizzie Kendrick, director of digital engagement with The Campaign Workshop, a political consulting firm and advertising agency, urged advocates to make their case by telling people how they can be personally affected by a shortage of investment in water infrastructure. “Tell the story in a way that breaks it down to someone’s personal level,” Kendrick said. “Localize it, have one person share their experience.”

Annie Burtoff, deputy director of the Office of Innovation in Jersey City, said water infrastructure is often perceived as a technical topic, but can be made more accessible to the public through videos and presentations at community events. Still, there’s likely to be public pushback for water improvements, even if the money can be found, simply because the work of digging up streets to replace pipes is so disruptive, Burtoff said.

‘…we need to scare people’

Peter Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future, said advocates should stress that the cost of replacing water infrastructure is far lower before it breaks than it is after a water main, for example, springs a leak. That argument could be made, Kasabach argued, by compiling an annual list of the top 10 leaks or sewer overflows, and providing a cost breakdown of responding to those emergencies.

The public might pay attention if local authorities installed flashing lights at the site of a sewer overflow, Kasabach said, rejecting a suggestion by Stephen Marks of the City of Hoboken, that advocates should not alarm the public.

“I tend to think we’re at the point where maybe we need to scare people,” Kasabach said, during a discussion on how to build public awareness of the issue.

Mark Mauriello, co-chair of Jersey Water Works, and a former commissioner at the Department of Environmental Protection, acknowledged after the meeting that the campaign has a mountain to climb to win public support for its infrastructure campaign.

“What we’re trying to do is to impress upon people that these investments will have to be made at some point,” he said. “The longer we defer these investments, the more expensive it will be. It’s like when your roof starts to leak and you decide, ‘well, I’ll just let it leak, and I’ll have my joists and my soffits rot out, or do I fix the roof now?”